Guest Post by Luke Weston. Luke is a Melbourne-based physicist and occasional freelance electronic engineer, with a strong interest in educating the community about nuclear energy and related issues.
Just this week, Martin Ferguson has been actively stepping up his efforts to keep nuclear energy as a topic on the ALP’s discussion agenda, which is great to see, especially when it’s coming from the federal energy minister. Ferguson has been active in such efforts over the last few months, particularly since about December last year.
But, of course, the devout anti-nuclear fanatics are absolutely horrified that anybody within the ALP is daring to even ask questions about nuclear energy, to even speak about nuclear energy, to even think about it or to talk about it at all.
The usual suspects are absolutely horrified that the number of people who actively question their cherished ideologies of opposition to nuclear energy – essentially, it’s bad just because it’s bad because we think it’s bad – continues to grow.
If the ALP starts talking about about nuclear energy, that could lead to some within the ALP learning about, thinking about, and maybe even supporting nuclear energy. That could be a real threat to the current dominance of coal-fired generation – and we can’t have that now, can we?
Here’s what Senator Scott Ludlam had to say on the issue, in December of last year:
“The Australian Greens have strongly reminded the Government that nuclear power is not the solution to climate change.
The Greens spokesperson on nuclear issues, Senator for Western Australia Scott Ludlam, said nuclear power made no economic or environmental sense.”
A new peer-reviewed paper published recently in the international journal Energy, How carbon pricing changes the relative competitiveness of low-carbon baseload generating technologies, by Australian researchers Martin Nicholson, Tom Biegler and Barry Brook, finds that nuclear power is the lowest cost, low-emissions baseload energy generation technology which is fit for service today to replace coal-fired generation.
This paper is quite detailed, and is based on exhaustive meta-analysis of the body of published peer-reviewed research on the costs, maturity, availability, performance and environmental footprint of nuclear energy and other energy systems.
Personally, I think the authors were quite optimistic in their decision to include fossil fuel based energy systems utilizing carbon dioxide capture and geosequestration (CCS) as options that should be considered on the table alongside things like solar thermal and nuclear power, as clean energy systems which it is plausible to consider for scalable deployment in the not-too-distant future.
A report commissioned by the Australian Government from the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering which has also been published in recent weeks also reaches similar conclusions about nuclear energy in the context of an analysis of different energy technologies, finding that nuclear power is one of the lowest cost and most valuable options available for environmentally sound, non-fossil-fuel electricity generation to replace coal combustion.
The 2009 updated edition of the MIT Future of Nuclear Power study finds that nuclear power is economically competitive with coal and gas-fired electricity generation, especially in the presence of a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, and/or the demonstrated delivery of new nuclear power generation capacity in the United States leading to a reduction in the risk premium for finance that has been traditionally associated with nuclear power in the United States over the last few decades.
The MIT study finds that nuclear power is (just barely) economically competitive with conventional emissions-intensive fossil-fuel based energy generation (without geosequestration) at the present time. The study makes no attempt to compare the cost of nuclear power to other clean, non-polluting energy systems, which are all generally more expensive than emissions-intensive fossil fuel technologies, just as nuclear energy usually is.
This comparison, however, is exactly what the study by Nicholson, Biegler and Brook has set out to do.
Sweden’s forestry, chemical, mining and steel production industries, through their industry group SKGS, also recently asked Price-Waterhouse-Coopers to prepare an indicative estimate of the cost of new investment in nuclear, hydro and wind power as alternatives to fossil-fuel based electricity generation.
The PWC study calculated a minimum price based on the prevailing market rate of return available in the energy sector, excluding taxes, fees and contributions. The study used an investment that meets the market rate of return, with a minimum price for electricity from hydroelectric power at SKr 390 ($58.50) per megawatt-hour; for nuclear energy at SKr 421 ($63.10) and SKr 295 ($44.20) per MWh; and SKr 645 ($96.70) per MWh for wind power. Two models for nuclear energy were used in the study – one in which government loan guarantees were not included and the other where they were, respectively.
We know that nuclear power provides the scalable, reliable, high capacity factor electricity generation needed to replace coal-fired power stations, that it is highly environmentally sound, and that for an emissions-free, scalable, reliable, proven means of energy generation, it is financially very attractive compared to comparable alternative candidate technologies.
There is a large body of credible data and professional analysis which is all pointing in the same direction in support of these conclusions. However, Ludlam provides little more than a quick sound-bite statement that nuclear energy is bad, and fails to provide much in the way of any real data or research or evidence to support his contention. In fact, the consensus of the body of real peer-reviewed research and credible literature that is out there on this subject is indeed that the opposite is true.
“Nuclear power generation means uranium mining at the start of the process – which involves serious environmental contamination, and it means nuclear waste at the end of the process – a problem to which no one has put forward a credible solution,” said Senator Ludlam. “And the power generation itself raises serious questions.””
Uranium mining does not involve any impact on the environment which is really any different to any other kind of mining, and the “footprint” of uranium mining is far, far smaller than the ecological footprint of the mining required to extract the coal, oil or gas required to deliver a given amount of energy.
Generating energy from solar-thermal power plants or from wind turbines means mining silica, iron, limestone, copper, bauxite, neodymium, oil and so forth in order to manufacture the materials used to construct the plant. Just about every industrial technology in existence depends on some mining, and completely demonising all mining is silly.
We know that the inputs of materials such as steel and concrete required for the construction of solar power or wind power plant are far greater than the inputs of such materials required for the construction of nuclear power plant, for the same amount of energy generation.
What is the total life-cycle footprint of all the mining required to generate a kilowatt-hour of energy from nuclear power, and how does it compare to the total life-cycle mining footprint of a kilowatt-hour from solar thermal, wind, fossil fuels, or other energy generation technologies?
That’s a very interesting question, but it’s a question that Ludlam does not even attempt to actually think about or ask.
Nuclear power results in radioactive waste, yes. But how much of this “problem” is really a problem, as opposed to a manufactured problem and a manufactured controversy?
How much radioactive waste is generated per kilowatt-hour? Has the nuclear energy industry somehow failed to effectively and safely handle and store this radioactive waste over the 60-year history of global nuclear power?
What proportion of this radioactive waste is really waste? What proportion of it is actually useful, valuable material which is useful as nuclear fuel or for other technological applications?
Has radioactive waste from nuclear power ever hurt or killed anybody, ever?
Ludlam says that nuclear “power generation itself raises serious concerns”. But where are the details as to what those concerns actually are?
“The report from Dr Mark Diesendorf, deputy director of the Institute of Environmental Studies, found that nuclear energy will be more expensive than most forms of renewable energy by 2020,” he said. “Dr Diesendorf’s report, delivered yesterday, found that the cheapest renewable energy sources – including landfill gas, onshore wind, conventional geothermal and hydro – are already cost-competitive with conventional nuclear energy power plants… By 2020, offshore wind farms, solar thermal and solar photovoltaics are all projected to be less expensive than nuclear energy.”
Ludlam’s statements do not give any citation, or the name of a publication, for this “report” in question from Mark Diesendorf. As far as I’m aware, the “report” in question from Mark Diesendorf is actually an unrefereed talk presented at a solar energy conference, of all the places. It does not appear to correspond to anything that has passed any standard of professional peer-review, nor has it been published in any peer-reviewed journal.
Even if the work in question has not been published in academic research literature, no citation is given for this report, no reference is made to any actual paper or literature (or a copy of the presentation slides or an audio recording, for a spoken conference presentation) that can be downloaded or requested from the author for a read and some arguably less formal peer-review. That’s the kind of behaviour I would expect to see (and what I do regularly see) from somebody who stands by their research in an academically respectable way, even if it has not been published or not yet been published in the professional literature.
It’s still possible to uphold a certain standard of academic openness, scientific integrity and a belief in the importance and the usefulness of peer-review, even without having your publication appearing in a major scientific research journal.
Even something as simple as writing a blog post outlining your science and your evidence and your conclusions, and allowing other people to come along and post their comments on it, is a form of openness to peer-review, even though it may seem less professional, and it can be very valuable.
There is a significant body of published literature out there which disagrees with Diesendorf’s contentions, and it has generally been peer-reviewed and accepted by referees for publication in international journals, been open to ongoing responses and peer-review within the scientific community, and has been available to the community for wider analysis and broader peer-review (in a less strictly professional sense) by the public.
Diesendorf claims that landfill gas, onshore wind, conventional geothermal and hydro are all “cost-competitive” with nuclear power – or they might be in the future. However, as Dilbert once had to remind the Pointy-Haired Boss, competitive means it isn’t the best.
Furthermore, Diesendorf does not seem to present any assessment of whether these energy sources are scalable, reliable, or capable of being scaled up and operating with sufficiently high capacity factors such that they are fit-for-service as credible replacements for coal-fired generation.
“Dr Diesendorf found that the cost of building a nuclear power plant has risen rapidly since 2002, from more than $US2000 per kW of generation capacity installed, to about $US7400 per kW.”
Sure, the cost of nuclear power has increased, due to the cost of labor, the cost of finance in today’s financial environment, the increasing cost of regulatory compliance, the costs of raw materials, and the cost of anti-nuclear activism.
But what does this tell us about the overall cost of nuclear power, compared to alternative clean energy technologies? It tells us nothing, and it is really nothing more than FUD.
How does the cost of nuclear power compare to the cost of alternative clean energy technologies, today?
How have the costs of alternative clean energy technologies been affected by the costs of labor, the costs of raw materials, and the costs of finance in today’s financial environment?
You can’t just say “nuclear power is too expensive!” without using credible data to put those costs in context alongside the costs of other equivalent clean energy systems.
Nuclear power is the lowest cost energy generation technology which is clean, reliable, proven, scalable and fit for service as a clean replacement for coal-fired generation today. Stating the well-known but not particularly notable fact that nuclear power has become more expensive than it was several years ago does not change or dilute that truth.
For anybody who claims in any way that nuclear energy is “too expensive”, I say this. Let’s implement the following simple plan:
1) Let’s implement a real tax on carbon dioxide emissions. Make it significantly high, so as to put a real financial disincentive on fossil fuel use, and let’s eliminate any free exemptions, subsidies or handouts for coal-fired energy generation.
2) Let’s remove any arbitary, irrational legislation that says that nuclear power is singled out and restricted or banned in any way. Of course, the construction and operation of nuclear power plants shall still be subject to licensing and regulation in a rational way via ARPANSA and/or health physics regulators at the state level, to ensure safety and environmental protection, but in a rational way, without double standards and “nuclear exceptionalism”.
3) Since a carbon dioxide tax creates an equal incentive for energy generation from any clean energy source, let’s eliminate any and all free handouts, subsidies, inflated feed-in tarriffs or government-funded incentives for solar power, wind power or any particular clean energy systems.
Then the free market will clearly decide fairly quickly whether nuclear energy is “too expensive” or not – and I don’t think the answers will come out in a way that the anti-nuclear activists consider favorable.
“Senator Ludlam said Resources Minister Martin Ferguson and two senators from the ALP Right had it “disastrously wrong” on nuclear power as a solution to climate change.”
It’s OK for Ludlam to say that… but at the risk of repeating myself, what fact or science or evidence basis does Ludlam have to support such a contention? It really appears pretty thin.
“Ziggy Switkowski, Chair of the Board of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, said in 2006 that nuclear power has no capacity to contribute to emissions reductions in Australia by 2020 and limited capacity to reduce emissions by 2030,” said Senator Ludlam.
There is no citation given for this quotation, supposedly from Dr. Switkowski. I’m not in a position to confirm whether this quotation from Switkowski is real or not. However, it is of course entirely fallacious to even imply that somebody who supports nuclear power for Australia, like me, will not question or disagree with or present skepticism of such a statement, just because it was (apparently) said by Switkowski.
Appeals to authority – to the authority of Switkowski, for example – are fallacious.
If this nation and this government really wants to do it, we can choose to have a Hazelwood or two replaced with nuclear power by 2020. It takes three to five years to build a nuclear power plant, allowing four to six years for increased political acceptance, political approval and licensing. Do we choose to, or not?
Australia already has government agencies responsible for regulating the safe handling of radioactive materials and technologies which generate ionising radiation such as X-ray tubes and particle accelerators. Australia’s government health physics regulators are made up of not only ARPANSA at the federal level, but also the health physics regulators in each state government, at the state level, as well.
Australia’s health physics regulators have plenty of experience in regulating the safety of all kinds of different applications of ionising radiation, including but not limited to regulating and licensing the construction and safe operation of the HIFAR, MOATA and OPAL research reactors, and regulating the decommissioning of the MOATA and HIFAR reactors.
Sure, it’s true that Australia’s health physics regulatory agencies do not have any prior experience assessing, licensing and regulating the operation of a nuclear power reactor in Australia. However, a few years ago, Australian scientists went to the health physics regulators in Victoria, and asked for the appropriate radiation safety licenses to be put in place for the Australian Synchrotron – and the regulatory people did not say, no, sorry, we don’t have any prior experience with a synchrotron light source, we can’t license that and therefore you can’t operate it – did they?
There’s a first time for everything, but that’s not a problem at all.
Nuclear power “has limited capacity to reduce emissions by 2030”, says Ludlam.
Yes – since you’ve specified a limited timeframe, by 2030, then there is some limit to the amount of emissions-reducing coal-replacing generation capacity that you can install within that finite timeframe.
The amount of wind or solar or natural gas or any kind of electricity generation capacity that you can install within the finite lenth of time between now and 2030 is naturally limited too, of course.
I commend Senator Ludlam on that absolutely astonishing, groundbreaking insight.
But what are such limits, quantitatively, in the context of nuclear power? What are the build rates for nuclear power capacity, and how do the numbers compare to the build rates that can be achieved for other clean energy alternatives, measured against the same real amount of installed energy generation capacity?
Of course, “quantitatively” is something of a four-letter word amongst fanatical anti-nuclear activists.
The 2006 Switkowski Report also noted that establishing a nuclear power industry “would substantially increase the volume of radioactive waste to be managed in Australia and require management of significant quantities of high level waste.”
That certainly makes perfect sense. Establishing a nuclear power industry in Australia would substantially increase the amount of radioactive waste to be managed in Australia. But so what? What are the ramifications of this? This reeks of FUD.
Has radioactive waste ever hurt anybody in Australia? What about throughout the entire world? Used nuclear fuel is not “high level waste”. It’s quite radioactive, but it’s certainly not waste, and it’s quite straightforward to handle it and store it perfectly safely, and to transport it perfectly safely if you have a reason to transport it.
The used nuclear fuel from Australia’s HIFAR and MOATA research reactors has, over the last few decades, been exported back to other nations such as France, the United States and the United Kingdom and either recycled or permanently stored, under agreements put in place when that enriched uranium fuel was purchased. After that used nuclear fuel is recycled (if it is recycled), the small portion of radioactive fission product material remaining after the valuable enriched uranium and plutonium remaining in the fuel has been recycled is vitrified into a slug of borosilicate glass contained within a solid steel canister which is returned, as agreed, to Australia for final disposal.
This material represents the largest quantity of radioactivity, and the most highly radioactive material, of all the radioactive waste that Australia possesses as a result of our nuclear science and technology activities up to the present time. However, the actual volume of such material is very small. This material is not considered high-level radioactive waste, but only intermediate-level radioactive waste, and it will remain significantly radioactive for about 300 years.
If Australia adopts nuclear power and the irradiated nuclear fuel from Australia’s nuclear power reactors is similarly recycled, the resulting radioactive fission-product waste will be quite similar, and it can be packaged up into quite a similar form and disposed of as intermediate-level radioactive waste. Of course, the amount of this radioactive waste will increase with the adoption of nuclear power reactors in Australia, relative to the very small amounts produced at present from Australia’s research reactor programs.
“Over a 50-year lifespan, 50 reactors would be responsible for 1.8 billion tonnes of low level radioactive tailings waste, assuming the uranium came from Olympic Dam. The reactors would be responsible for 430,000 tonnes of depleted uranium waste, a by-product of the uranium enrichment process. The reactors would directly produce 75,000 tonnes of high level nuclear waste and 750,000 cubic metres of low level and intermediate level waste.”
The scenario described by Ludlam refers to the operation of 50 nuclear power reactors (let’s take them to be 1 GWe each) for a lifetime of 50 years – which corresponds to the generation of 2,500 gigawatt-years of electrical energy.
Operating 50 nuclear power reactors, which I will assume to be 1 GWe each and operated at a 95% capacity factor, will generate 416 TWh of electrical energy per year. But Australia’s total electrical energy demand at present is only about 200 TWh per year. Furthermore, even if we build sufficient nuclear power capacity to close down all the polluting coal-fired and gas-fired electricity generation capacity in this country, nobody is proposing that we will tear down Australia’s existing hydroelectric, wind energy, and solar energy generation infrastructure. Therefore, the proposed scenario of building 50 nuclear power power reactors in Australia would actually give us a supply of electrical energy of a bit over twice our present demand for electrical energy.
Building 20 to 24 nuclear power reactors in Australia would be sufficient to provide for the complete elimination of all fossil-fuel based electricity generators in Australia, whilst still providing reliable electrical energy at present levels. The amount of uranium required to be mined would of course actually be just under half of the figures specified by Ludlam.
But OK, let’s just be conservative about it. Let’s look ahead to the future, and assume that we do want those 50 nuclear power reactors, to give us plenty of headroom to provide for the expansion of energy demand into Australia’s future.
The traditional nuclear fuel cycle for electricity generation using conventional light water reactors, without fuel reprocessing, without the downblending of weapons-grade fissile fuels into LWR fuel, and without the use of fast reactors such as the Integral Fast Reactor requires an input of approximately 170 tonnes of natural uranium for the generation of one gigawatt-year of electrical energy.
Therefore, if 50 nuclear power reactors, of 1000 MWe capacity, were operated for 50 years, 425,000 tonnes of natural uranium would be required. This assumes no use of efficient advanced reactors, no recycling of once-used nuclear fuel, and no supply of nuclear fuels from nuclear weapons decommissioning. It seems to me that such assumptions are quite conservative – but that’s OK; for the sake of conservatism, let’s work with that.
The average concentration of uranium in the Olympic Dam orebody is 280 ppm. Therefore, for the entirety of that uranium to come from Olympic Dam, the total amount of ore that would need to be processed would be 1.5 billion tonnes.
If we assume that that this ore that is to be mined is what Ludlam calls “low level radioactive tailings waste”, then this mass figure is roughly consistent with Ludlam’s quoted figure of 1.8 billion tonnes.
If the 2500 gigawatt-years of electrical energy in question was generated by coal instead, it would require the mining and the burning of approximately 11 billion tonnes of black coal, resulting in the emissions of approximately 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
However, it’s important to remember here that Olympic Dam is not a typical mine. It’s quite an unusual mine, and it’s certainly not representative of a typical uranium mine. Olympic Dam is a large copper mine, which also contains a low concentration of uranium, gold, silver and a few other minerals in the orebody. It is economically feasible to extract the uranium, gold and silver as byproducts from the copper ore when it is processed, effectively increasing the value of the mined copper ore with no additional mining work required.
The copper ore mined at Olympic Dam is crushed, and the sulfide minerals are separated from the waste ore by froth flotation. The copper sulfides are then smelted and processed, and gold and silver are seperated from the anode slimes formed during electrorefining of the copper. The waste ore that is left over after the sulfides are separated is then leached with an acid solution, and the uranium is concentrated and recovered by solvent extraction, and converted to uranium oxide.
We could either choose to put the waste ore back into a hole in the ground without extraction of the uranium, which would mean that this waste ore would contain considerably more radioactivity than it presently does, or we can choose to extract the uranium from this waste ore, as is presently done at Olympic Dam. In doing so, we generate a very large clean energy resource, and we do it with a very small investment of effort and energy on top of the effort and energy which is already expended in the mining and the processing of the copper ore at Olympic Dam. Doing so also removes the weakly radioactive uranium from the waste ore – the “tailings” – which is stockpiled on the site.
The waste rock does contain the uranium daughter products – radium, polonium and so forth – but all these elements are naturally present in the natural rock, in secular equlibrium with the uranium. So, you’ve got these radioactive materials?left in the ore – but they all occur completely naturally in the rock inside the Earth. Obviously uranium mining does not “create” any of this radioactivity – it’s all a part of nature. Uranium mining doesn’t involve any kind of nuclear transmutation. All the radioactivity you could possibly be dealing with is all what is naturally present in the orebody.
Since this waste ore is a result of copper mining, and gold and uranium and silver are recovered as byproducts from it, and the extraction of uranium from this waste ore removes radioactive uranium from this waste and turns it into a vast, valuable, saleable, clean energy resource, it seems a bit ridiculous to me describe the production of this waste ore as some sort of negative consequence of uranium mining.
Olympic Dam is a large copper mine, producing 200,000 tonnes of copper per year at present production levels. The refining and smelting of all that copper requires considerable amounts of energy input, of course – but it’s worth remembering that without copper, generating, transmitting, distributing and using electrical energy – from any source – becomes quite a technological challenge.
Olympic Dam produces a small amount of uranium – about 4,500 tonnes of uranium oxide per year, at present production levels – as a co-product from its copper ore. The concentration of uranium in the ore, about 280 ppm, is much smaller than that mined at typical uranium mines, and such ore would not be considered a viable body of ore for an economical uranium-only mine – but it’s quite viable to extract it from the copper ore that is already mined, adding additional value to the mine.
Because of the nature of the Olympic Dam mine, the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of the mine is significantly inferior to any conventional uranium mine, because of all the energy spent mining and refining all that copper, compared to the small amount of uranium product, and therefore the whole-of-lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy output (the nuclear energy generated from the mine’s uranium output) are much larger than they are at any conventional uranium mine.
Similarly, the amount of ore mined per tonne of uranium produced is far higher than it is at typical uranium mines, and the amount of water consumed per tonne of uranium produced is much higher at Olympic Dam than it is at typical uranium mines. All these things are true, basically, because Olympic Dam is not a uranium mine – it’s really a copper mine.
Therefore, when we’re talking about EROEI for uranium mining, whole-of-lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for uranium mining, water consumption for uranium mining, or the amount of mining done per tonne of uranium produced, one should watch very carefully when anti-nuclear activists cite Olympic Dam as their example of a uranium mine – it’s usually a case of misleading cherry-picking of an atypical mine.
One should look to actual uranium mines, such as Ranger, Honeymoon, Rossing, Cigar Lake, McArthur River and so forth, in order to actually get an accurate, sensible idea about such metrics in the context of uranium mining.
Even though the overall EROEI of the Olympic Dam mine is inferior to any actual uranium mine, the mine still has a very large overall EREOI. Suffice to say, Olympic Dam has the highest EROEI of any copper mine I’ve ever seen!
The expanded mining operation at Olympic Dam will produce, in coming years, up to 19,000 tonnes of uranium oxide per annum, at full operating capacity.
19,000 tonnes of U3O8 contains 16,110 tonnes of natural uranium, and since about 170 tonnes of natural uranium is required to generate one gigawatt-year of nuclear electricity, assuming that conventional, relatively inefficient nuclear fuel cycles are used, with no reprocessing or fast reactors, this means that Olympic Dam’s uranium output will generate 831,000 gigawatt-hours of electrical energy per year; based on these conservative, even pessimistic, assumptions.
831,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity is about 3.7 times Australia’s total electricity generation at present, which is about 230,000 GWh per annum. Therefore, the greenhouse gas emissions that are actually avoided by the use of that uranium as an alternative to fossil fuel based electricity generation are actually about 3.7 times Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation.
One kilowatt-hour of electricity generation using coal combustion corresponds to the emission of about one kilogram of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Therefore, replacing 831 terawatt-hours of coal-fired electricity generation with nuclear energy, powered by Olympic Dam’s uranium output, will displace about 831 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year.
This should be compared to Australia’s current total greenhouse gas emissions – from all sources, not just electricity generation – of 506 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per annum, excluding land use change.
The uranium – produced as a byproduct – from the expanded Olympic Dam mine will by itself generate enough clean energy, as an alternative to fossil fuel energy generation, to completely write off Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions almost twice over.
Today’s total worldwide rate of coal extraction is approximately 7 billion tonnes of coal per year. The energy density of coal is approximately 24 megajoules of primary (thermal) energy per kilogram, and therefore, the combustion of that seven billion tonnes of coal (the overwhelming majority of which is combusted) corresponds to an energy output of about 4.7 * 1016 watt-hours of primary energy per year.
If the 116,000 tonnes of natural uranium produced per year at the expanded Olympic Dam mine were to be consumed efficiently, for example in Integral Fast Reactors, it will yield approximately 2 gigawatt-years of primary energy per tonne of uranium (or approximately one gigawatt-year of electrical energy per tonne if the energy is converted with a thermodynamic engine efficiency of about 50%, for a good Brayton-cycle engine).
Therefore, the annual primary energy output from Olympic Dam’s uranium used efficiently in fast reactors would be approximately 2.82 * 1017 watt-hours, or approximately six times more energy than the energy content of all the coal mined on Earth.
What about if we threw in all the oil and gas extraction in the world, too? I’ll leave an analysis of the actual quantities as something for the interested reader to think about, but suffice to say all the oil and gas extraction in the world can’t make up an amount of primary energy content equal to five times the energy content of all the coal mined in the world.
If that uranium was utilised efficiently in an efficient nuclear energy system such as the Integral Fast Reactor, the amount of uranium produced as a byproduct of copper production at the expanded Olympic Dam mine – just from one single mine – would correspond to a quantity of primary energy production greater than all the present production of all fossil fuels on Earth.
Some people may protest that it cannot possibly be so – but this is what nature is. This is what the energy density of this stuff is.
One does come to suspect, then, that utlilising such a resource probably does have quite some potential when it comes to the mitigation of anthropogenic climate forcing due to carbon dioxide emissions.
I haven’t checked whether Ludlam’s quoted figure of 430,000 tonnes of depleted uranium resulting from the enrichment of that amount of LEU is accurate. But let’s just assume that it is accurate; I’ll give the benefit of the doubt here.
Given that one tonne of depleted uranium will yield approximately one gigawatt-year of electrical energy when it is converted to energy efficiently in an efficient nuclear energy system such as an Integral Fast Reactor, that 430,000 tonnes of depleted uranium can supply Australia’s entire electricity requirements, at the present level, for 15,000 years.
Uranium, particularly depleted uranium, is easy to store. Its radioactivity is almost negligible, and it is not a significantly hazardous substance. Therefore there’s absolutely no problem with storing this unused uranium for a few years, or even several decades, prior to using it all efficiently as a nuclear fuel.
After 50 years of initial uranium mining, no further uranium would ever need to be mined again at all, because the vast resource of stockpiled “depleted” uranium could then be used, along with used nuclear fuel and thorium and deuterium and lithium for fusion, to supply boundless energy for an eternity.
“Those within the Government calling for nuclear power need to think again. It is not safe, it is not affordable and it will not address the challenge of climate change,” said Senator Ludlam.
Again… this is a nice little sound bite of rhetoric and FUD from Ludlam, however, there is no body of evidence to support any such claims. In fact, the significant body of scientifically credible evidence on the subject which exists demonstrates that such claims are false.
Jim Green (whose full time professional occupation literally seems to be telling people that nuclear energy is bad) also decided to weigh in on this subject, in a recent op-ed, also from December:
“How much radioactive waste would be generated by a nuclear power industry in Australia? Obviously it depends on the number of reactors. Ziggy Switkowski, Chair of the Board of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), has been promoting the construction of 50 power reactors in Australia.”
As I’ve explained above, 50 nuclear power reactors is a very generous, conservative number, relative to Australia’s electricity generation capacity at the present time. But nevermind; let’s work with this generous, conservative figure.
“Over a 50 year lifespan, 50 reactors would be responsible for 1.8 billion tonnes of low level radioactive tailings waste – that’s assuming the uranium came from the Olympic Dam mine in SA.
The Olympic Dam expansion Environmental Impact Statement estimates 68 million tonnes of tailings waste from production of 19,000 tonnes of uranium. This is sufficient for 95 reactors, equating to 716,000 tonnes of waste per reactor per year. 50 reactors for 50 years is 2500 reactor-years. Multiply that by 716,000 tonnes and you get 1.8 billion tonnes of waste. The reactors would be responsible for a further 430,000 tonnes of depleted uranium waste, a by-product of the uranium enrichment process. (This enrichment would most likely take place overseas.)
As the 2006 Switkowski Report notes: “Establishing a nuclear power industry would substantially increase the volume of radioactive waste to be managed in Australia and require management of significant quantities of high level waste.”
Isn’t it uncanny just how similar parts of Green’s op-ed and Ludlam’s piece above are? Imagine if you had a couple of graduate students writing theses like this, with so much in common – and with no citations. Pretty serious questions would be asked.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading the work of anti-nuclear activists, it’s that they’re really, really bad at coming up with original material. At least it makes our life easier – just read my response above.
It is nice that Green gives at least some explanation of the synthesis of the quoted figure of 1.8 billion tonnes of ore waste; which Ludlam neglects to do.
The reactors would directly produce 75,000 tonnes of high level nuclear waste and 750,000 cubic metres of low level and intermediate level waste.”
By “75,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste”, what Ludlam and Green are referring to is 75,000 tonnes of once-used irradiated nuclear fuel removed from the nuclear power reactors. Ludlam and Green assume (they either assume, or they take the number as gospel from somebody else who has assumed) that 30 tonnes of used nuclear fuel will be removed from each power reactor per gigawatt-year of electrical energy output.
In reality, with the levels of burnup and efficiency associated with modern light-water power reactors, this figure would be approximately 20 to 25 tonnes of used fuel per year, for a typical 1000-1100 MWe reactor. So, after 50 years of running 50 power reactors, you would have about 50,000 to 62,500 tonnes of used nuclear fuel.
Now, let’s remember that this once-through used LWR fuel is made up of approximately 96% by mass of unreacted uranium. So, let’s suppose that we simply pull out that unreacted uranium, and use it again. This means that we have 48,000 to 60,000 tonnes of unreacted uranium, and 2000 to 2500 tonnes of remaining material; consisting of the fission products and transuranics created in the nuclear reactor.
This material is comprised of a mixture of valuable, useful, exotic materials, and it’s certainly not “waste”. However, even if that 2000-2500 tonnes of byproduct material created in the nuclear reactors was really “waste”, that would be a tiny, insignificant quantity of material to have to deal with as the result of an enormous 2500 gigawatt-years of electricity generation.
“The Switkowski Report states that a repository will be required for the more voluminous low level wastes soon after the first reactors begin operating. The smaller volumes of high level waste could be managed initially through interim storage, followed by deep geological disposal. All of that is easier said than done, of course: there isn’t a repository for high level nuclear waste anywhere in the world.”
“Repositories for lower level wastes exist but there have been numerous problems. In Asse, Germany, for example, all 126,000 barrels of waste already placed in a repository are being removed because of large-scale water infiltration over a period of two decades.”
Australia has been storing radioactive waste from industry, medicine and scientific research for roughly the last 100 years – basically, for as long as nuclear and radiological science and technology has existed. We already store considerable volumes of low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste from medicine, from scientific research, from disused radioactive sources, and from radioisotope production and research reactor operation. A considerable volume of low-level radioactive waste, from the last 50 years or so of ANSTO’s work, is stored on site at the ANSTO campus, just to give one specific example.
So, is it really true that a national repository for low-level radioactive waste will be required to be constructed soon after Australia’s first nuclear power reactors begin operating? No. Low-level radioactive wastes can be stored on-site at nuclear power stations, at least for a time, just as radioactive waste is presently stored on-site at ANSTO and at other research and medical institutions around Australia.
If used nuclear fuel is recycled and its valuable content recovered, the remaining radioactive fission-product waste can be regarded as intermediate-level radioactive waste, just as the vitrified fission-product waste from ANSTO’s research reactor fuel is at present. Unless used nuclear fuel is simply discarded without processing it and recovering its valuable content, Australia does not actually need to generate any high-level radioactive waste. Used nuclear fuel is not intrinsically waste, it’s actually quite a valuable resource.
Between 1971 and 1998, large amounts of low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste, including radioactive waste from research and development and scientific and medical applications of radioactivity, surplus sealed radioactive sources from industrial and medical applications, and radioactive waste from the nuclear energy industry was disposed of safely and successfully in the Morsleben deep geological repository in Germany.
The DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico began accepting transuranic radioactive waste for permanent geological disposal 12 years ago, in 1999; including radioactive waste from scientific research, government nuclear energy research and development, nuclear weapons development, production and stewardship, and from transuranic sealed radioactive sources used for industrial and technological applications.
The SFR national geological repository for Sweden’s low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste both from the nuclear energy industry and from other industrial, medical and scientific activities has been operating and receiving radioactive waste in Sweden since 1988.
A permanent geological repository for unprocessed used nuclear fuel (which is high-level radioactive waste, if you choose to call it waste) from Sweden’s nuclear energy industry will be constructed in Söderviken, close to the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant. Here, at a depth of approximately 500 metres in bedrock that is 1.9 billion years old, the geological repository for some 12,000 tonnes of used nuclear fuel will be constructed. Research, engineering and planning for this meticulously researched, planned and engineered facility are quite advanced at the present time.
Highly radioactive used nuclear fuel must be kept cool and shielded for some time while its radioactivity decays, prior to its processing or final disposal. This takes place in Sweden in the interim storage facility in Oskarshamn, where Sweden’s used nuclear fuel is stored in water basins 25-30 meters below ground level. During the years of interim storage the radioactivity and heat output of the nuclear fuel decays by about 90 percent.
Söderviken is in the Forsmark industrial area and will be the location of the above-ground facilities for the deep geological repository for used nuclear fuel. A 5-kilometre-long ramp will be constructed from the surface down to the repository at a depth of about 500 meters. When construction is completed, the repository will contain up to 60 kilometres of tunnels in an underground system with a capacity for 6,000 copper canisters of spent nuclear fuel. It is estimated that an area of about four square kilometers will be required for the construction of the facility.
Large amounts of radioactive waste and used nuclear fuel are stored all over the world, and have been for many decades. Even though the majority of this material is not stored in permanent deep geological repositories, it is obviously already being stored safely and effectively – of all the radioactive waste being stored all over the world, Green has cited one example of a case where it has turned out that the isolation between the radioactivity and the surrounding environment has deteriorated in a permanent geological disposal facility for low-level waste.
Very few people in the history of the world have ever been harmed or killed by radioactivity as a result of the improper handling of radioactive waste. One notable example was the Goiânia accident in Brazil in 1987, involving an abandoned large radioactive sealed source used for medical radiotherapy. This is the only example I can think of where any people have been harmed or killed by ionizing radiation from improperly handled radioactive waste. But nobody says that we should ban medical radiotherapy because of the Goiânia accident, do they?
We know for a fact, from the last century of real-world empirical experience, that there is simply no real history of radioactive waste being stored in a way that harms people or harms the environment at all, in the absolutely overwhelming majority of cases.
“Ideally, sound science and democratic principles will guide decisions on how to manage the radioactive waste. In practice, industry and governments throw science and democratic principles out the window and look to dump the waste on politically soft targets. This has been the experience with radioactive wastes generated at the Lucas Heights research reactor.”
Ideally, decisions on how to manage radioactive waste will be guided in a sensible, rational way, based on sound science, with the support of a democracy given access to accurate, honest, factual information on that sound science.
However, some anti-nuclear activists do not want that to happen, and seek to give the public only rhetoric and pseudoscience, and to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt.
In this environment, where the public is only being given rhetoric and FUD instead of actual science-based information, we have to question whether “democracy” without honest knowledge and awareness should be the fundamental guiding process of policymaking.
Deliberately giving the people bogus information to inform their decisions on technical and scientific matters of public policy, and then steadfastly insisting on this deceptive idea of democracy is a morally bankrupt subversion of democracy used only to promote ideology.
Our experience with radioactive wastes generated at the Lucas Heights ANSTO campus is essentially identical to our experience with all the other radioactive waste generated in medical, scientific and technological activities involving radioactivity in Australia. Radioactive waste is almost exclusively stored on the site where it was generated, because there’s nowhere else for it to go. Radioactive waste generated at ANSTO has almost exclusively stayed at ANSTO – but that’s not “dumping the waste on politically soft targets”.
“You’d think that Martin Ferguson, as the minister responsible for managing the waste generated at Lucas Heights, would have thoroughly assessed all the available options before deciding to establish a remote dump for radioactive waste. You’d be wrong. The viability of ongoing waste storage at Lucas Heights has been acknowledged by ANSTO, by the federal nuclear regulator, and even by Ferguson’s department — but the minister dismisses that option out of hand.”
I certainly agree with assessing all the available options, in a sensible, rational, science-based fashion with regards to making decisions concerning the management and storage of Australia’s radioactive waste.
The ongoing storage of the low-level radioactive waste currently stored at Lucas Heights on an ongoing basis is viable – however, this does not mean that there is no other radioactive waste in Australia to be managed. ANSTO’s intermediate-level radioactive waste needs to be managed, too, and it has not been established that all of ANSTO’s intermediate-level radioactive waste can be stored on that site indefinately into the future. Furthermore, ANSTO is only one of hundreds of radioactive waste generating sites around Australia.
“You’d think that Ferguson would insist on a rigorous site selection process for a remote repository. You’d be wrong. Mr Ferguson’s preferred dump site, at Muckaty, 120 kms north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, didn’t even make the short list as a “suitable” site when a preliminary site selection study, based on scientific and environmental criteria, was carried out in the 1990s by the federal Bureau of Resource Sciences.”
To be honest, I don’t personally view Muckaty Station as a site that stands out to me as a particularly favourable site for a national radioactive waste storage facility. However, that does not mean that I support anti-scientific NIMBYism and BANANAism with regards to the management of radioactive waste, from anti-nuclear activists who enjoy the benefits of nuclear and radiological science and technology, but seemingly cannot comprehend the fact that some radioactive waste results from the use of such science and technology.
The fact is, no matter how much science and evidence and reason we put into the site selection for a national radioactive waste repository, at the end of the day, once we decide on a site, there will be some anti-nuclear activists protesting against the site that has been selected, and lobbying the public and governments to oppose the site that is selected.
I fully support a rigorous, science-based, evidence-based critical analysis of the best siting for a national radioactive waste repository for Australia. But the fact is, anti-nuclear activists who wouldn’t know what scientific analysis was if it bit them on the bum will oppose any such site, and they will lobby state governments until state governments block the siting of a national radioactive waste repository in their state.
I agree with a rigorous, science-based, evidence-based selection of the best site for a national radioactive waste repository for Australia. But For a rigorous, science-based, evidence-based selection of the best site for a national radioactive waste repository for Australia to actually work, we need people like Jim Green and Scott Ludlam to promise that they will stop irrational, non-science-based activism and fanatical opposition to any particular site selection from going on, under the aegis of Friends of the Earth or the Australian Greens.
“And you might even hope that Ferguson would stick to ALP policy to handle this controversial issue in an open, transparent and fair manner. But again, you’d be wrong. Ferguson has put the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill (NRWMB) before Parliament. This draft legislation is draconian and will override all state/territory laws including NT legislation which seeks to ban the imposition of radioactive waste dumps.”
“There is growing opposition to the government’s handling of this issue, such as concerted union activity culminating in the unanimous endorsement of a strong resolution by the national congress of the ACTU in 2009. Councils and communities along potential transport routes have begun to voice their opposition. Thousands have attended public meetings around Australia to listen to Muckaty Traditional Owners voice their concerns. A legal team is working on the case pro bono.”
“Former Liberal Party Senator Nick Minchin was one of a succession of Howard government ministers in charge of the failed attempt to impose a national nuclear waste dump in South Australia from 1998-2004. He got it right when he said: “My experience with dealing with just low level radioactive waste from our research reactor tells me it would be impossible to get any sort of consensus in this country around the management of the high level waste a nuclear reactor would produce.””
Because fanatical anti-nuclear activists aren’t interested in supporting the siting of a national repository for Australian radioactive waste in any location, no matter how rationally it is chosen, and they will continue to lobby state governments to oppose the siting of such a facility in any particular state, the Federal government has no choice but to override state and territory legislation which irrationally bans radioactive waste storage. Of course, at the present time, radioactive waste is already stored in every single Australian state and territory – in our hospitals, universities, industrial facilities, and government military and scientific research institutions where radioactive materials are used and radioactive waste is generated.
I understand where the federal government is coming from in choosing to focus on the Northern Territory as a preferred location for an Australian radioactive waste repository – however, given that Australian radioactive waste is distributed across the country roughly commensurately with our population density, mainly in our population centres in Eastern or South-Eastern Australia, perhaps a federal territory like the Jarvis Bay territory or the ACT would be a more convenient, more rational choice, since it is still a federally-administered territory, and yet it is closer to the majority of Australia’s radioactive waste which will be transported to the site.
The federal government has no choice but to override state and territory-level legislation which bans radioactive waste storage, where such irrational legislation has been enacted in response to anti-nuclear activism, and to focus on the Northern Territory as a site for Australia’s radioactive waste repository, where it is easier for the federal government to enact these decisions.
People like Jim Green and Scott Ludlam can choose to help avoid this, by cooperating in a rational site-selection process, and supporting informed state government and public participation in a rational site selection process. However, doing so means opposing irrational, non scientifically informed activism, especially when it comes to the constituents of their own respective organisations.
Will they choose to do so? I’m curious to find out… let’s wait and see.